ACMA cold on revised customer service code


Regulator threatens direct intervention.

The telco industry has entered last-ditch negotiations with the communications regulator in an bid to gain approval for a revised customer service code it hopes to enact by August.

The code was revised in response to an 18-month inquiry by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Reconnecting the Customer, that sought answers on spiralling complaint levels from telco customers.

It was submitted to the ACMA for registration in February. However, the ACMA has so far declined to register the revised code over concerns that it does not meet all recommendations laid out by the inquiry.

Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton yesterday revealed further amendments to the revised code had come about as a result of discussions with the ACMA, consumer groups and the competition watchdog during February and March.

These included:

  • Strengthening a proposed Communications Compliance body that is to oversee adherence to the code.
  • More prominent display of unit pricing, including in fixed-line broadband plans (the ACMA had called for unit prices for two-minute calls, SMS messages and a megabyte of data).
  • Adoption of a standardised summary of information for plans. (the ACMA had wanted telcos to publish a "Plan Essentials" document summarising the details of all plans offered to consumers).

Stanton said the industry code had entereda new round of redrafting and would now move to a final round of consideration this week.

The ACMA's decision to reject or accept the industry code is expected "imminently."

"There is now no rational reason... why we shouldn't be able to get the code registered by the ACMA and set about delivering to consumers the benefits that that code can bring," Stanton told the Commsday Summit in Sydney this week.

"It is really time for a Sistine Chapel moment - it is not time to look upwards at the depiction of the outstretched hand of God touching Adam and say, 'You know what, I'd like to change one brushstroke in God's index finger'.

"Rather, it's time to take ten steps backwards into the Navel chapel, look up, take in the big picture, wink at Michelangelo and say, 'Well done son. Let's take it to the people'."

The code still has a chance of failing the ACMA's approval process, however, with the watchdog's chairman Chris Chapman indicating there were several major flaws in the revised code.

Chapman said the industry body had shown "assiduous dedication" in revamping the code but that attempts to revise key areas marked for improvement - such as advertising, pre-sales information and expenditure usage tools - had been "less impressive".

"My view, without pre-empting the decision of the authority, is that [Communications Alliance] has made a good fist at meeting the principles of the Australian standard and in this aspect of the code and, if registered, would make a valuable contribution to customer satisfaction in the event of a problem," he said.

But, he said, several areas still "do not shape up".

Chapman told iTnews that that the regulator could choose to register the code in July for the compliance period to begin on August 1 but optimally wanted the code to begin as soon as possible.

Shadow of direct regulation

Should the code ultimately be rejected, even on relatively minor grounds, the ACMA would move to directly regulate the telecommunications industry, ending attempts and increasing calls from the industry to allow for co-regulation in customer service standards.

The imposition of direct standards would come as a win for the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, the chief executive of which voted against the February version of the code.

A spokeswoman for the organisation said that the body was "in no way 'ideologically opposed' to co-regulation", as was suggested by Stanton during his Commsday Summit speech, but that it would only work with appropriate enforcement.

"It is not possible for ACCAN to vote 'yes' to parts of the Code and 'no' to others, where we can see they do not meet the ACMA's requirements – any more than it is possible for the ACMA to register parts of the revised TCP Code and not others," they said.

"Ultimately, we were as disappointed as any of the parties involved that the TCP Code fell so short of what was required of it by the regulator."

Chapman said he was not against co-regulation but the industry must show it was capable of achieving that standard.

Updated 2.50pm: Clarified position of ACCAN in voting against February version of the TCP code.

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ACMA cold on revised customer service code
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